Surfing at Hampton and Seabrook, and other N.H. beaches.

Email|Print| Text size + By Joseph Monninger
Globe Correspondent / July 23, 2006

HAMPTON BEACH, N.H. -- On a fine June morning, 20 surfers line up for ``the wall" not far off the beach, their wet suits as shiny as sealskins, their boards angled to the horizon so they can spot the building swells. The water, unusually warm this year, is in the mid-50s.

When a good wave approaches, two boards swing toward shore, the surfers paddling with windmill motions that any boogie boarder would recognize. One misses, one catches the break, and for a 10-count he rides the 4-foot curl toward land, his short, three-keeled board stitching back and forth to absorb the maximum energy from the wave.

From Seabrook to Rye, surf's up in New Hampshire. And it has been for years.

Surfing is everywhere riding a new wave of popularity, fueled at least in part by the crossover from snow- and skateboarders looking to extend and enhance their seasons. Earlier this spring, for instance, Paul Nowakowski, 24, a student at Plymouth State University, located two hours north in New Hampshire's White Mountains, traveled with the school's snowboard club for a trifecta of board sports.

``We went snowboarding at Loon Mountain in the morning, traveled to Hampton for a couple hours of surfing, and then finished at a skate park in Hampton where we did some skateboarding," Nowakowski said. ``It was an amazing day."

Kevin Rafferty, the twenty something manager of the Cinnamon Rainbow Surf Co. in Hampton Beach, claims the resurgence of surfing has a lot to do with wet suit technology. He also points out that women are surfing in greater numbers, too, joining the men all winter long on the southern swells that break up and down New Hampshire's coast.

``The technology for wet suits has just boomed," Rafferty said. ``It opened up the sport to families and to year- round surfing. On a blustery winter day, with 2 feet of snow on the beach, you may see a hundred surfers riding 10-foot waves in good old New Hampshire."

The key, according to Rafferty, is the 3-2, or 4-3 millimeter wet suits that a surfer requires in northern latitudes. The first number indicates the thickness of coverage on the torso, the second is the thickness on the extremities. During the summer, a surfer requires a 3-2, and in the autumn a 4-3 with a hood, booties, and gloves. In winter the count can go to a 5-4. But today's materials are more pliable than in the past, and the surfer feels less encumbered.

``You'd be amazed," Rafferty said. ``When a surfer comes out of the water in January , you'll see him steaming."

It may be far from the West Coast and a far cry from ``Beach Blanket Bingo," but the surfing craze extends all along the New England shore. A surf scene exists in nearly every eastern beach community, with wave riders finding breaks as far north as Maine and into Nova Scotia. Nowakowski learned to surf on Nantucket last summer and his group of friends -- all snowboarders -- immediately saw the appeal.

``Once you buy your board and a wet suit, it's free. The waves don't cost anything," Nowakowski said. ``And besides, it's not like any other sport. It's a source. It's not just about catching a wave. You can sit on your board for hours and not catch a decent wave and it's still a good day."

Mike and Linda Paugh, owners of Zapstix Surf Shop, a few miles down the road in Seabrook, agree. This spring they marshaled Article 57 through the Seabrook Town Meeting to make sure Seabrook Beach remained open for surfing. A small contingent in town wanted to outlaw surfing and reserve the beach for swimmers.

``We felt that Seabrook kids should have a place to surf," Linda Paugh said. ``We have a beautiful break on a sandy beach. This is an ideal place for kids to learn and enjoy surfing. "

Mike Paugh, whom many aficionados point to as the best surfer in New Hampshire, conducts lessons for families on the surf in Seabrook five nights a week from Memorial Day into October. He also designs custom surf boards, including a new Bikini Surfboard line for girls.

BOOGIE OVER

to explorenewengland.com for a photo gallery and how to send us your surfing photos.

``People have been surfing here a long time," Mike Paugh said. ``Paul Hamblet , Steven Watson, Steve Clark -- these are guys who have been around for 20 years surfing this water. Paul Hamblet is in his 60s, I think, and he's still surfing beautifully."

Paugh has surfed in famous locations around the world, but he ranks New Hampshire and its 13 miles of surfable coast line high on his list of best surfing spots.

``You have to watch the weather," he said. ``Surfers are nuts about the Weather Channel. But when the right elements combine, New Hampshire surf is as good as it gets. We are not as consistent as some other places, but you can come across some extremely challenging surfing here."

Waves are a mirror image of the ocean's floor's topography, which makes New Hampshire's rocky shoreline ``mechanical," or predictable. A wave always begins breaking at its shallowest point, which can cause sifting sand beaches to change from year to year. But a rocky shoreline has the advantage of remaining constant for decades. It doesn't matter if the surf is 10 feet or 2 feet high, the wave breaks in the same pattern.

While part of the renewed popularity of surfing comes from older surfers returning to it, surfing has experienced its greatest growth as a family sport. Sarah Stanton, 20, a pre law student and resident of Groveland, remembers coming to Hampton Beach with her father and brother as a little girl.

``We never took a lesson," Stanton said. ``Our dad put us on a board and we paddled around. For us it was just what happened when we went to the beach. I don't really remember the process of learning. We just always surfed."

Steve Stanton, Sarah's father, remembers hitchhiking around New England with a surf board back in the late 1960s. He still takes his original board, a 9-foot Gordon & Smith, out once a year. Through his early adulthood, he and his brother, Dave, routinely drove the half hour to Seabrook and camped weekends on the beach. Often rain brought the best surf, and Stanton linked surfing to the puddles in the street.

``Surfing always picked up during a storm," Steve Stanton said, ``and it lasted until the puddles dried in the street."

When he became a father, it never occurred to him to leave his children at home while he went surfing.

``I never liked just sitting on the beach," he said. ``I'd put Sarah on a board when she was tiny, so she could surf on anything. Her brother, Sean, still surfs with a group of friends. It makes me happy when I see him take off with his board, because I know he is heading toward a good time."

Now, youngsters can attend evening surf camps, offered by both Cinnamon Rainbow and Zaptix surf shops. And adults can sign up for private or group lessons, during which instructors teach water safety and the basics of surfing. The sport has grown so rapidly in the past few years that the classes are filled quickly. Rafferty says veterans are returning to the sport because they find it easier on their joints and muscles than land-based exercise.

But surfing is still a state of mind. As Steve Stanton says, surfing may be like snowboarding, but in surfing the mountain moves.

``I've spent more time in my life on a surfboard than a bicycle," Stanton said. ``I'm drawn to the music and the environment, the whole thing. People wouldn't believe it, but right here, in New Hampshire, I've been out surfing in the evening and the sunset caught the waves and turned them pink. To go surfing on pink waves, well, that's something I'll never forget."

Contact Joseph Monninger, whose book ``Two Ton ," about the 1939 Joe Louis-Tony Galento prizefight , will be published in November, at joem@plymouth.edu.

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